Giambattista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770), very famous and much in demand in his lifetime, has a roomful of his enormously tall paintings at the entrance to the European galleries of the Metropolitan Museum. Thought to be just a gifted decorative artist, unlike Piero della Francesca, he has not has not become a culture hero. In a justly famous essay, Roberto Longhi plays him against Caravaggio, whose violent sexuality makes him the subject of popular novels and films. Caravaggio has been called a proto-revolutionary and a proto-modernist. Tiepolo lived very nearly into the time when the venerable Venetian Republic, his native state, would disappear. But he has nothing to do with modernism. Glorifying his princely German, Italian and Spanish patrons in grand ceiling frescoes, he emphatically is not a figure of the Enlightenment. It seems appropriate that Proust mentions him three times in In Search of Lost Time, not, however, citing paintings but only with reference to the distinctive “Tiepolo pink.”
As the great historian of metamorphosis, whose The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmonyamounts to a postmodernist rewriting of Ovid, it is natural that Roberto Calasso be enchanted by the last great Italian painter to focus on this pre-modernist tradition. But “Tiepolo is a biographer’s nightmare,” Calasso notes. “We know nothing of his ill humors, or of his gloomy or euphoric moments” (p. 40). He seems to have read very little, and was not written about by his contemporaries. “Of all the greats of painting, Tiepolo was the last one who knew how to keep silent” (p. 220). So “what are the implications of the theatricalization of the world in Tiepolo” (p. 63)? Calasso’s answer to that question begins by focusing on the etchings, the Capricci and Scherzi di fantasia. Unlike Tiepolo’s ceilings, altarpieces, mythologies and portraits, these were not commissioned. The experts tend to think of them as fantasies, which is to say that they may have no specific meaning. They show “an unreasonable number of poles, flags, pennants, tree trunks, stakes, staves, masting, branches, and halberds” (p. 103). And they obsessively repeat images of Oriental men, witnesses who never intervene in the action, and snakes. We may sense Tiepolo’s awareness of ancient secret sects and contemporary witchcraft trials. And we should recall Giorgione’s Orientals and Michelangelo’s snakes. Tiepolo loves to juxtapose a voluptuous young woman and a vigorous old man, the traditional allegorical figures of Truth unveiled by Time, which he interprets in a highly personal way. In one very late painting, he shows that pair before a stage curtain hanging from the sky, putting us on the gods’ side. Tiepolo chose, Calasso argues, “to portray the moment in which the invisible is about to appear—or maybe it has just appeared or is taking shape” (p. 141). The old regime was dying, as indeed in his last painting, which shows the Flight into Egypt, Tiepolo signals that he too is about to die.
Because commentators have assumed that Tiepolo is a superficial artist, they have not offered much interpretation of these pictures. (Calasso mentions, but does not analyze, the most challenging recent account, Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence by Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall. That is unfortunate, for their book certainly supplements and perhaps challenges his account.) Specialists are sure to debate his account of Tiepolo’s iconography, and his elegant but surely highly speculative discussion of the last paintings. Speaking for myself, I am dazzled by Calasso’s visually convincing analysis, but still skeptical. Recent would-be solutions to Giorgione’s Tempest or Piero’s Flagellation have inevitably been well defended. Because Tiepolo has been so much less written about, Calasso feels free to interpret without considering obvious objections to his analysis. But whatever the fate of its claims, this book deserves a wide readership because it is elegant, beautifully produced and, above all, great fun to read. When Calasso describes Tiepolo’s pictures with reference to sprezzatura, that very Italian concept of art that conceals art, he is of course also describing his own compulsively quotable verbal performance.
Roberto Calasso Tiepolo Pink (Translated by Alastair McEwen). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 290 pp. 82 full-color illustrations, $40 ISBN 978-0-307-26766-5print